Bellefonte, Pennsylvania (CNN)The man was about to snap. He had just lost a child.
“I couldn’t really relate to that,” Peter Robinson said of his fellow inmate. “I know what loss feels like, though.”
Like the other prisoner, Robinson struggles with mental illness; he has bipolar disorder and depression. The men talked for a long time. They came to focus on the message of the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
“The things I can’t, you’ve just got to let it go,” Robinson recalled.
The two remain friends now at State Correctional Institution-Benner Township, a medium-security men’s prison with about 2,000 inmates. The concrete collection of buildings stands starkly against the rolling green farmlands of central Pennsylvania.
That moment, when Robinson talked his friend through a mental health crisis, “it’s something I’m proud of,” he said.
It’s part of Pennsylvania’s innovative new approach to mental health care in prisons. Inmates and staff alike train to reach a mutual understanding about how to deal with the myriad issues surrounding mental health.
It’s an approach born from necessity, after a scathing government investigation into the state’s prison practices.
‘A huge amount of scrutiny’
The investigation began after a lawsuit was filed by the Disability Rights Network against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. The Department of Justice launched it in May 2013 in one prison and then expanded it to the entire Pennsylvania prison system. It focused on the treatment of inmates with mental illness and the use of solitary confinement.
“It put our system under a huge amount of scrutiny,” Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said.
There are the heavy, sliding cell doors you might expect in a prison, but you may not expect the under-the-sea mural on the wall or the cheery coloring pages that dot the tables in the common space.
This is where many of SCI Benner’s most seriously mentally ill inmates live. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, delusions and myriad other issues manifest in the inmates here, according to the unit’s manager.
“In the past, you just had a problematic inmate and you really didn’t know, and you didn’t know what staff to contact,” George said.
After the mental health training George received, he feels more capable of handling challenging situations with mentally ill inmates. Now, he engages directly with inmates to learn what their problems might be when they’re acting out or upset.
“Certain inmates talk about, thinking about suicide, suicidal thoughts,” George said. “I like to pull them out. That way, I have a constant observation and speak to them.
“I’m not a healer, by no means. I’m just doing my job.”
The inmates notice a difference, too.
Some of the corrections officers took a while to adjust to the new approach to mental health, but there is a new level of respect among all, said James Weitzel, an inmate in the peer-to-peer counseling program.
“A lot of the [corrections officers] here, they really are buying into this,” said Weitzel, who is nearing the end of his 12-year sentence for bank robbery. “Some are being drug in kicking and screaming, but they’re really giving it the effort. When I see someone trying to help somebody, I can appreciate it.”
Rather than becoming nemeses, it seems the inmates and corrections officers at SCI Benner are coming to a new level of mutual understanding.
“They didn’t put me here, bottom line,” Weitzel said. “They didn’t put me here, and they’re human beings just trying to feed their families, and they chose a career, and this is it.”
Beyond the prison walls
When peer-to-peer counselor Al Sherik Moate leaves prison, he wants to return to culinary school.
“I just finished my cookbook,” he said. “I want to try different things. I want something better now for me and my family. For them to be happy, I’ve got to be happy myself.”
Moate says that before his training, he couldn’t talk to anyone. But he’s come out of his shell now.
“This is about bettering the self,” he said. “I lost so many opportunities and doors closed behind me because this wasn’t my lifestyle.
“I know now how to reopen it and make myself better now.”
Data don’t yet to track the program’s progress, but Wetzel is optimistic about the results.
“You have an individual who comes to a prison mentally ill, not only gets in recovery but learns to help others and then gets out and helps others,” he said. “That’s great stuff.”